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Dealing with trauma

Dealing with trauma

By Cathy Kezelman and Pam Stavropoulos

Wellbeing 

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Acknowledgement of trauma and implementation of trauma-informed practice within legal practice and systems is long overdue. Doing so will enhance both individual and community wellbeing.

Unlike “normal stress”, trauma involves the overwhelming of coping mechanisms in response to real or perceived threat. Innate and initially protective fight, flight or freeze responses are activated. People living with the effects of unresolved trauma are often, however, profoundly destabilised by normal life stress. The cycle of physical and psychological reactivity it precipitates negatively affects wellbeing, and erodes health and a wide spectrum of functioning.

The word “trauma” generally connotes single incidents (post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD) but “there is more to trauma than PTSD”.4 Complex (cumulative, underlying) trauma – which is often interpersonal – is more common5 and its effects are more pervasive.6 Complex trauma is prevalent in legal and judicial contexts: “As a powerful institution in society, law regularly encounters and deals with people, both as victims and offenders, whose lives have been shaped and harmed by traumatic events”.7

In contrast to clinical treatment of trauma, trauma-informed practice can be learned and implemented by all. Its primary aim is to avoid the compounding of trauma – to “do no harm”.

Trauma-informed practice is relevant to all contexts, services and institutions which engage with people with unresolved trauma. Necessarily this includes the institution and practice of law which is pivotal in regulating human behaviour and adjudicating disputes. “The law too should strive to become trauma informed.”8

Pertinence to law

Many members of the public find engagement with the law and justice system stressful (regardless of prior trauma). Heightened stress increases the potential for negative repercussions for all parties, including legal practitioners.

Trauma-informed practice helps to de-escalate charged interactions and arousal, with many attendant benefits. Many people have experienced harm from encounters with the law, so “do no harm” is especially pertinent (“Most, if not all, situations of conflict and harm involve questions of justice and injustice, and situations of injustice frequently involve trauma”).9 Minimising additional harm and containing fallout is beneficial for practitioners and clients alike.

Foundational assumptions of legal discourse and training curricula largely preclude recognition of the adaptive and protective purposes of many responses. Assimilating the insights and research base of trauma-informed practice is critical. Adherence to “rational actor” models, and to the primacy of self-interest, ignores the neurobiological effects of unresolved trauma. The imperative to protect from overwhelming experience trumps rational calculation of interest maximisation. Intense stress impairs cognitive and reflective capacity and leads us to operate from a different area of the brain.10

“When correctional officers were trained in the Rhode Island system, administrators showed up to make it clear we were making these changes for them as well as for the women. Officers need to know that some inmate behaviour is an adaptation that stems from trauma and that there are things they can do to help a woman ‘chill’ when something sets off the alarms. They actually understand this better than the psychologists. They don’t need clinical language to get it.”11

The implications of contemporary research for core concepts of legal practice (eg, notions of credibility) are enormous. Updated knowledge regarding the nature and operation of memory (non-unitary and involving explicit [conscious] and implicit [somatic])12 is vital for enhanced client engagement and just legal outcomes. Implementation of trauma-informed principles mitigates the risks of secondary vicarious trauma13 from repeated exposure to traumatic material.

Positive relational experiences assist integration of neural pathways disrupted by stress, while negative relational experiences impede integration and compound the effects of stress.14 This understanding mandates a trauma-informed approach interpersonally and systemically. Enhanced wellbeing of all parties and facilitation of the administration of justice will follow. Stress generates stress; introduction of trauma-informed practice is part of the antidote.

Core trauma-informed principles

The following trauma-informed principles can be readily acquired by all personnel, irrespective of the nature of their work, qualifications and the services they provide:

  • Basic knowledge of the effects of stress on the brain and body.
  • Embedding of the principles of safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment (doing with rather than for or to).
  • Consistent focus on the way in which a service is provided – (how – not just what – the service is). “What the judge did was pretty incredible. He asked me to come forward. It created a sense of privacy. I didn’t have to shout across a really busy courtroom. He really helped me in that simple act of asking me to come closer . . . I had been in the mental health system for 14 years, and this judge changed my life in that one simple act.”15 “Once our courtroom team participated in trauma training, we questioned all our routine practices. We communicated more respectfully and effectively, and we began to be much more individualised in our approach to each case.”16
  • Attention to what has happened to a client, rather than what is “wrong” with client/s. “All it took to begin my recovery was for someone to ask me, ‘what happened to you?’ who was also prepared to listen to the answer.”17
  • Recognition that difficult behaviour and/or symptoms may result from coping mechanisms and attempted self-protection from previous adverse experiences. Without a trauma lens, client behaviour is “often and inappropriately labelled as pathological, when [it] should instead be viewed as adaptations a person has had to make in order to cope with life’s circumstances”.18
  • A strengths-based approach which acknowledges people’s skills, while remaining cognisant of the enormous challenges of the effects of trauma. “Not only are we thinking about the trauma of the parent and the child, but also we’re steeped in the strength-based approach to recognising that that parent knows their child best . . . to affirm that parent in their relationship with their child . . . can be one of the most healing experiences for the parent as well as the child. The two combined has been very powerful.”19

Becoming trauma-informed means attuning to all aspects of a service and how it is delivered (formal and informal; policy and procedure, first contact, and the manner of client engagement).20 Trauma-informed practice applies to all levels of service delivery; from senior management to front line workers (all staff, paid and unpaid; “top down and bottom up”).21

While implementing the requisite changes take time, some immediate changes can predate comprehensive embedding. The significant benefits of so doing necessitate prompt action.

Increased possibilities

Comprehensive introduction of trauma-informed practice within and across the many contexts of law and the judiciary will have multiple benefits for diverse stakeholders.

Reforms in many areas of law do not guarantee improved processes and outcomes. With respect to some areas of law, opportunities to access and secure justice may actually be decreasing rather than increasing.22 Trauma-informed practice enhances the likelihood that the processes and intended outcomes of legal reform/s will be achieved by minimising triggers, a sense of overwhelm and the effects of traumatic stress.

The 2015 National Wellness for Law Forum highlighted that “the conversation on psychological wellness and distress in the law has advanced substantially”.23 Yet systematic engagement with the paradigm of “trauma-informed” is missing from this conversation.

It is overdue to deal with and comprehensively implement trauma-informed practice within legal culture and systems which, as discussed, will correspondingly enhance individual and community wellbeing.

Steps to take

Embedding trauma-informed practice and transitional change necessitates appointing “trauma champions”. Buy-in from legal and/or judicial leadership is critical. It also requires a commitment to trauma-informed and vicarious trauma training for all staff at all levels. Trauma-informed systems’ assessments enable recognition of potential triggers and development of mitigation strategies. Also vital is a collaborative approach within and across systems for dealing with change supplemented by support and advocacy mentors.24

The nature of a practice, service or system determines steps to be taken including the need for adjunctive structures and processes. These may include trauma-informed counselling, debriefing and/or supervision delivered by recognised practitioners accessed through identified referral pathways.

Trauma-informed systems understand the effects of traumatic stress on victims, offenders, clients and families. Steps need to be taken to ameliorate these effects. They include systems-level changes to optimise safety and minimise the level of trauma to which already traumatised populations are exposed. They also entail reduction of exposure to traumatic reminders (triggers), and provision of supports and tools to manage traumatic reactions should they occur.

The following comments attest to the multiple benefits of introducing trauma-informed practice in one area of law:

“… we delivered a full-day training on trauma to attorneys, judges and court staff which featured the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) Bench Card for the Trauma-Informed Judge. As a result of the training, we are better equipped to identify trauma in children that appear before us.

“The NCTSN Bench Cards have helped my judicial colleagues and [me} ground our decisions in the emerging scientific findings in the traumatic stress field. So, when I met [a young client] a year ago, I immediately knew she had been exposed to toxic stress as a child.

“Knowing about her history, I immediately asked for a trauma-informed mental health evaluation for [her]and asked other questions on the Bench Card to make sure I had all the information I needed to fully understand [this child’s] trauma exposure. As a result, she is doing well in a residential treatment facility that specialises in trauma-informed care – not juvenile corrections.”25


Dr Cathy Kezelman is president and Dr Pam Stavropoulos is head of research at Blue Knot Foundation.

  1. Cathy Kezelman, Nick Hossack et al, The Cost of Unresolved Childhood Trauma and Abuse in Australia (ASCA and Pegasus Economics, Sydney, 2015).
  2. The Last Frontier: Practice Guidelines for Treatment of Complex Trauma and Trauma Informed Care and Service Delivery (Blue Knot Foundation, formerly ASCA, Sydney, 2012).
  3. Melanie Randall and Lori Haskell, “Trauma-Informed Approaches to Law: Why Restorative Justice Must Understand Trauma and Psychological Coping”, The Dalhousie Law Journal (Fall 2013), p501.
  4. Robin Shapiro, The Trauma Treatment Handbook (Norton, New York, 2010), p11.
  5. Bessel A van der Kolk, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the Nature of Trauma”, in Marion F. Solomon & Daniel J. Siegel, ed. Healing Trauma, (Norton, New York, 2003), p172.
  6. Sandra Bloom & Brian Farragher, Destroying Sanctuary, (Oxford University Press, New York, 2011), p67.
  7. As note 3, p523.
  8. As note 3, p505.
  9. Carol Dwyer, Warden, Rhode Island Department of Corrections in Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, p5.
  10. H. Zehr, “The Intersection of Restorative Justice with Trauma Healing, Conflict, Transformation and Peacebuilding,” Peace and Justice Studies (23, 18, 1.5, 2009).
  11. Daniel J. Siegel, Mindsight (Random House, New York, 2009).
  12. Pat Ogden et al. Trauma and the Body (Norton, New York, 2006); Siegel.
  13. Sharon Rae Jenkins & Stephanie Baird, “Secondary Traumatic Stress and Vicarious Trauma: A validational study”, Journal of Traumatic Stress (15, 5, 2002), pp.423-432.
  14. Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy (Norton, New York, 2002).
  15. Trauma Survivor, Essential Components to Trauma-informed Treatment Practice, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
  16. Treatment Court Judge, as above.
  17. Tonier Cane, National Center for Trauma-informed Care in Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Creating a Trauma-informed Criminal Justice System for Women: Why and How, www.nasmhpd.org/sites/default/files/Women%20in%20Corrections%20TIC%20SR(2).pdf, p4.
  18. Randall & Haskell, p508.
  19. Interviewee re benefits of trauma-informed approach in Laurie A. Drabble PhD MSW MPH, Shelby Jones MSW & Vivian Brown PhD (2013), “Advancing Trauma-Informed Systems Change in a Family Drug Treatment Court Context”, Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 13:1, 91-113, DOI: 10.1080/1533256X.2012.756341.
  20. Roger Fallot & Maxine Harris, “Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care: A Self-Assessment and Planning Protocol”, Washington, DC: Community Connections (2009).
  21. Jo Ann Ferdinand, Judge, Brooklyn Treatment Court in Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, p3.
  22. Justice Peter McClellan, Chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 14th International Criminal Law Congress, Melbourne said:”[i]n spite of the issues being well-known, and in spite of decades of reform, the preliminary results from some of our research suggest that the opportunity to secure justice for victims of sexual abuse through the criminal justice system may in fact be decreasing, rather than increasing”.
  23. “Theme for 2015”, National Wellness for Law Forum, February 2015. www.tjmf.org.au/2014/12/event-2015-national-wellness-for-law-forum-5-6-february-2015/
  24. Drabble, Jones & Brown, note 19 above.
  25. Judge Mary E. Triggiano, Milwauee County Circuit Court, Wisconsin, The Trauma-informed Judge: Asking all the right questions. Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children; National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, www.casaforchildren.org/site/c.mtJSJ7MPIsE/b.9248319/k.92EA/JP04_Triggiano.htm.

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